Who cares after young people leave care?
For many of us, deciding where we go for Christmas is simply a toss up between competing sets of relatives. True, it may cause a little conflict if the prospect of two days snowed in with a grumpy sister in law (not mine obviously, she’s lovely) feels more than you can stand, but at least it’s somewhere to go, people to be with.
But for some of the many thousands of young people who’ve grown up in care, there is no such option. Estranged from their family and having outgrown their status as children “looked after” by the state, they may find themselves completely alone at Christmas.
Twenty six year old Shalyce Lawrence grew up in care and remembers one particular Christmas spent alone in her new flat. No decorations, a ready meal for lunch – and worst of all perhaps – no one to talk to. When one of her closest friends committed suicide just before Christmas, Shalyce resolved to try to ensure no care leaver should spend the day alone.
She founded the Topé Project – named after her friend – which for the past three years has hosted Christmas day for care leavers who have nowhere else to go. It started with five people around her grandmother’s table and this year will see more than 100 young people share lunch, be given presents and entertained.
Although Shalyce does it for other care leavers, it’s clear the event has had a profound effect on her too. “This is what Christmas is about. We literally sat down together and we ate together and a lot of time people don’t have that. For me it was the best feeling in the world because I’d had a Christmas [alone} where I’d probably had a ready meal to then having a Christmas where I was sitting with 100 people and eating and talking. It was just amazing.”
But this is about more than providing Christmas lunch. Jerome Harvey Agyei is a friend of Shalyce’s and now helps with the project. He was profoundly affected by the suicide of their friend and says mental health issues for those brought up in care receive too little attention.
He was put into care when he was just four. Moved from place to place, and separated from his nine siblings, he says it’s hard to make sense of yourself, your life. For him, the Topé Project is a chance to create good memories for fragile young people who may often feel it’s hard to keep going.
“We want to give them something to look forward to. When you look forward to something you’re not going to do something crazy to hinder that.”
Neither Jerome nor Shalyce thinks Christmas day is enough to change someone’s life but what they hope it will do is “start the conversation” about what more needs to be done for the children and young people who leave care and too often, go out into the world with little or no support.
As Shalyce put it: “They come from a system where they are supposed to be looked after and it feels like they leave the system and they just get left and thrown away pretty much and no one really actually thinks about them.”